Every year, a committee of experts sits down with a tough job to do: from among all ICREA publications, they must find a handful that stand out from all the others. This is indeed a challenge. The debates are sometimes heated and always difficult but, in the end, a shortlist of  the most outstanding publications of the year is produced. No prize is awarded, and the only additional acknowledge is the honour of being chosen and highlighted by ICREA. Each piece has something unique about it, whether it be a particularly elegant solution, the huge impact it has in the media or the sheer fascination it generates as a truly new idea. For whatever the reason, these are the best of the best and, as such, we are proud to share them here.


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  • A novel mechanism for faithful chromosome segregation compromised in cancer cells (2022)

    Vernos, Isabelle (CRG)

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    A novel mechanism for faithful chromosome segregation compromised in cancer cells

    New cells arise from existing ones through cell division. This is a continuous, frequent and ubiquitous process which starts at conception and ends at death. There are an estimated 37 trillion cells in the tissues and organs of the human body, each of which originates from one cell dividing into two.

    When cell division goes wrong, it can generate new cells with an abnormal number of chromosomes, a phenomenon known as aneuploidy. The frequency at which chromosome segregation errors occur is known as chromosomal instability (CIN). In some cases, for example a developing embryo, this can promote spontaneous abortion and in others, it can contribute to human diseases such as cancer. Aneuploidy and CIN are indeed hallmarks of particularly aggressive tumors. 

    Faithful chromosome segregation is fully dependent on the transient assembly of a microtubule-based molecular machine, the bipolar spindle. Microtubules are dynamic filaments that attach each chromosome to the spindle poles and provide the support and forces required for their segregation to the new daughter cells. Their dynamic properties need to be finely regulated so they remain stable enough to move and align the chromosomes, but also dynamic enough to allow for correction of any erroneous attachments before chromosomes are pulled apart and segregated. 

    We recently found that the polyglutamylation of the spindle microtubules defines finely their dynamics and thereby secures faithful chromosome segregation. This specific post-translational modification is driven by the glutamylase TTLL11. The polyglutamylation of the spindle microtubules is reduced in cancer cells that are characterized by high levels of aneuploidy arising from chromosome segregation defects. Consistently, TTLL11 expression is systematically downregulated in human cancers. Altogether these data suggest novel potential therapeutic approaches to fight cancer.

  • Weird tales and prophetic insights: the brain in cinema from the origins to the present (2022)

    Vidal, Fernando (URV)

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    Weird tales and prophetic insights: the brain in cinema from the origins to the present

    A major modern ideology claims that we are essentially our brains, and that the brain sciences will explain all human behavior and revolutionize society at large. As shown in my previous book, Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject (with F. Ortega, 2017), such ideology has become enormously influential since the mid-20th century, with the growth of the neurosciences and their application to an expanding range of human issues. A new book, Performing Brains on Screen (PBS, 2022) explores how films have represented it; the book appeared in Amsterdam University Press, a leading publisher on film and media.

    Why film? Because since the late 19th century, it has helped forge, transform or maintain values, beliefs, ideals, prejudices, hopes, expectations and puzzles, including those concerning mind, body, personhood and personal identity. Dealing with over 200 movies since a 1909 French short where a man behaves like a monkey after receiving a monkey brain, PBS discusses how fiction cinema performs those puzzles. 

    After a chapter on US 1920-30s pulp “scientifiction,” with which later movies offer fascinating resonances, PBS delves into four vast areas of filmic production: naked brains and living heads; personal survival; Frankenstein’s brains; memory. Mad scientists and brain transplantations vary everywhere, but genres and styles vary enormously, and plots range from implausibly weird stories to retrospectively prophetic insights. Yet brainfilms share a fundamental feature. They begin by assuming the cerebral subject ideology, always postulating (in philosopher R. Puccetti’s words), that “Where goes a brain, there goes a person. ”Subsequently, though, their visuals and story lines question it and problematize it. In spite of initially reducing self to brain, they enact the idea that social contexts, relations, and the extra-cerebral body are constitutive of personhood and personal identity. Thus, behind the first impression that the cinema adheres to the belief that we are our brains, we find that it uses such belief as a narrative and visual resource to become one of the most powerful modern reminders of humans’ essentially relational and embodied nature.

  • Microplastics deposited on the seafloor triple in the last 20 years and mimic plastic production (2022)

    Ziveri, Patrizia (UAB)

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    Microplastics deposited on the seafloor triple in the last 20 years and mimic plastic production

    Despite the seafloor being considered the final sink for microplastics floating on the sea surface, the historical evolution of this pollution source into the sediment domain, and particularly the sequestration and burial rate of smaller microplastics onto the ocean floor, is unknown. 

    A new study shows that microplastics are retained unaltered in marine sediments, and that the microplastic mass sequestered onto the seafloor mimics the global plastic production from 1965 to 2016. it provides the first high-temporal resolution reconstruction of microplastic pollution from sediments obtained in the northwestern Mediterranean Sea. Since 2000, the amount of plastic particles deposited on the seafloor has tripled, and that, far from decreasing, the accumulation has not stopped growing, which is mimicking the production and global use of these materials.

    The sediments analysed have remained unaltered on the seafloor since they were deposited decades ago. Since the 1980s, but especially in the past two decades, the accumulation of polyethylene and polypropylene particles from packaging, bottles and food films has increased, as well as polyester from synthetic fibres in clothing fabrics. The process of degradation takes place mostly in the beach sediments, on the sea surface or in the water column. Once deposited, degradation is minimal, so plastics from the 1960s remain on the seabed, leaving the signature of human pollution. Although smaller microplastics are very abundant in the environment, constraints in analytical methods have limited robust evidence on the levels of small microplastics in previous studies. In this new study they were characterised by applying state-of-the-art imaging to quantify particles down to 11 µm in size.

    Data from annual marine sediment records show that we are still far from reducing and/or banning single-use plastics that are discharged and accumulating in the marine environment. Policies at the global level in this regard could contribute to improving this serious problem.

  • Quantum theory needs complex numbers (2021)

    Acín Dal Maschio, Antonio (ICFO)

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    Quantum theory needs complex numbers

    Complex numbers are essential in mathematics, but are they necessary for physics? Without further qualifications, this question must be answered in the negative: physics experiments are described by the statistics they generate, that is, by probabilities, and hence real numbers. There is therefore no need for complex numbers. Physics however aims to explain, rather than describe, experiments through theories. Whether complex numbers are needed within a physical theory to correctly explain experiments, or whether real numbers only are sufficient, is not straightforward. Complex numbers are sometimes introduced in electromagnetism to simplify calculations: one might, for instance, regard the electric and magnetic fields as complex vector fields in order to describe electromagnetic waves. However, this is just a computational trick. Quantum theory radically challenged this state of affairs because its building postulates were phrased in terms of complex  numbers. This has puzzled countless physicists, including the fathers of the theory, for whom a real version of quantum theory seemed much more natural. For instance, Erwing Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum theory, wrote: “What is unpleasant here, and indeed directly to be objected to, is the use of complex numbers. The quantum wave function is surely fundamentally a real function”. Previous works confirmed this intuition by showing that such “real quantum theory” can reproduce the outcomes of any multipartite experiment, as long as the parts share arbitrary real quantum states. Thus, are complex numbers really needed in the quantum formalism? In our work, we showed this to be case by proving that real and complex quantum theory make different predictions in network scenarios comprising independent quantum states and measurements. This allows us to devise a Bell-like experiment whose successful realization disproves real quantum theory, in the same way as standard Bell experiments disproved local physics. Our results demonstrate how quantum networks, beyond their practical relevance, open radically new perspectives to solve open questions in the foundations of quantum theory.

  • Unveiling the hidden genes (2021)

    Albà Soler, M. Mar (IMIM)

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    Unveiling the hidden genes

    De novo gene birth is emerging as an important mechanism for the formation of new genes, but how de novo genes evolve and which is their impact in the functional proteome, are still poorly understood questions. In contrast to genes formed by duplication and subsequent divergence, de novo genes arise from non-genic parts of the genome, which become transcribed and translated. We have used comparative transcriptomics data from 11 different yeast species, together with ribosome profiling data from Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to obtain a comprehensive view of the genes that have recently been born de novo in the species.

    The study has identified 213 transcripts that have emerged de novo in the past few Million years, nearly half of which encode proteins. We have discovered that these transcripts often overlap other genes in the opposite orientation, unveiling novel ways in which the coding capacity of a compact genome can be increased during evolution. We have also obtained evidence that a subset of de novo proteins are likely to represent recent adaptations to stress conditions. The work advances our understanding on de novo genes and helps establish S. cerevisiae and closely related species as a model system to study this intriguing evolutionary process.

  • The same drug has opposite effects in memory when comparing males and females. (2021)

    Andero Galí, Raül (UAB)

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    The same drug has opposite effects in memory when comparing males and females.

    A drug of the Tac2 neuronal circuit, involved in the formation of the memory of fear, has opposite effects on the ability to remember aversive events in mice according to sex: it is reduced in male mice and increased in female mice.

    This is the first time that a drug has been shown to produce this opposite effect on the memory of male and female mice. The study also evidences that opposing molecular mechanisms and behaviours can occur in memory formation depending on sex. The study has been published in Nature Communications.

    The research group on Translational Mechanisms of Fear Memory, led by Raül Andero, has been studying the functioning of fear memory for years to find treatments for pathologies associated with traumatic experiences, such as post-traumatic stress and phobias.

    The research team had identified that the Tac2 circuit, located in the amygdala, could be temporarily blocked by the effect of a drug they are studying. This drug, called Osanetant, was able to reduce the capacity to recall traumatic events in male mice. In the study, they discovered that this same drug produces the opposite effect in female mice, increasing their fear memory.

    This opposite effect is explained by the fact that, in blocking the Tac2 pathway, the drug interacts with the neuronal receptors of two sex hormones: testosterone in males and estrogen in females. In addition, it has been observed that hormonal fluctuations during the oestrous cycle in female mice, equivalent to the menstrual cycle in women, vary the effects of the drug on the ability to remember aversive events.

    In the field of neurosciences, only one study in females is published for every 5.5 done in males. And research on Tac2 pathway has also been done mostly in males so far.

    The drug studied is not new, but it is safe for use in humans. However, at the moment it is not being used to treat any disease. Prof. Andero's group is now investigating its potential use in treating fear disorders differently by sex.